Marriage in the New Testament

Despite all the talk today about “biblical marriage,” the New Testament actually presents singleness as a preferable state.

By Miguel De La Torre

The concept of marriage in which women were relegated to property evolved from the Hebrew Bible by the time we get to the New Testament. The New Testament discouraged marriage, placing it secondary to a life of singleness and celibacy.

The celibate was considered holier and closer to God. Paul wrote, “The one given in marriage does well, but the one not given in marriage does better” (1 Co. 7:38). In fact, Jesus declared, “It is better not to marry” (Mt. 19:10). 

Familial ties were not as important as being a follower of Christ, where the prerequisite for discipleship was to “hate one’s father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” (Lk. 14:26).

To be a true Christian came to be understood as permanent celibacy, for abstinence was an outward expression of an inward freedom from the corruptible flesh. Marriage, according to Paul, was for those overwrought with sexual desires and unable to submit the flesh to the spirit by living a celibate life.

“But if they lack self-control,” Paul advised, “let them marry, for it is better to marry than to be inflamed” (1 Co. 7:9). According to Paul, “It is better for a man and a woman not to touch, but because of fornication, let each have his own wife and each her own husband” (1 Co. 7:1-2).

In fairness, these anti-marriage sentiments were probably due to the belief that Christ’s return was imminent. Why distract oneself with marriage and the worldly concerns a family generates when the end of the world was at hand (1 Co. 7:29-34)? Marriage was for those not “spiritual” enough to control their sexual appetites in order to spread the good news of Christ’s impending return.

While the Hebrew Bible saw women as property, the New Testament saw them as incubators. The early shapers of Christian thought believed that the only purpose for a woman’s existence was her ability to procreate.

Augustine went so far as to claim that it would have been better if God had placed another man in the garden with Adam instead of a woman (the original Adam and Steve?), because another man would have made a more suitable companion. Because of the need for procreation, God instead created Eve (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, IX: 5:9).

Only through childbearing could a woman be saved, a disturbing understanding of salvation as reiterated by Paul: “It was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. Nevertheless, she will be saved by childbearing” (1 Ti 2:14-15).

Paul, the promoter of salvation solely through grace and not by works, actually implies that unlike men, women are saved through childbearing: a concept rooted in patriarchy.

An underlining assumption found throughout the New Testament is that men are physically and morally superior to women. According to 1 Peter, “husbands must treat their wives with consideration, bestowing honor on her as one who, though she may be the weaker vessel, is truly a co-heir to the grace of life” (3:7).

Although equal in grace, the purpose for the woman as the “weaker vessel” is to be ruled by the man. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul insisted that women must cover their heads because the woman is the “glory of man.”

“For man ... is the image and glory of God,” he wrote specifically. “But the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. And man was not created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Co. 11:7-9).

Because man is closer to the spirit, he is a rational subject ordained to rule. And because woman is closer to the flesh, she is an emotional object ordained to be ruled. Thus, subjecting woman to man becomes the natural manifestation of subjecting passion to reason.

Paul made this view obvious when he wrote, “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also are wives to be subject to their husbands in everything” (Ep. 5:24). Just as the body must submit to the spirit, which is superior, and the church must submit to Christ, so too must the wife submit to her husband.

Ephesians (along with Colossians 3:18-19) set up the marriage relationship in which husbands are commanded to love their wives, while wives are commanded not to love, but submit to, their husbands. Marriage became an arrangement where the man found a person to satisfy his sexual desires, keep his household clean and in order and provide him with legitimate heirs.

Thank God we are moving away from such “traditional biblical marriages.” The challenge before us now is to move beyond the mythology created upon what we hope and think the biblical text says and what it actually says.

Only then, can this thing we call marriage continue to evolve toward a more liberating, justice-based relationship that frees us from the hierarchical and patriarchal arrangement we have for centuries justified through the Bible.

Previous related commentary:

‘Biblical’ marriage unmasked

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